Captain Lakshmi (aka Lakshmi Sahgal) – a person whose life was full of struggles, yet was a life full of freedom. Freedom that was her choice, but that also came with having a strong mother and a liberal father. She served as an officer in the Indian National Army or Azad Hind Fauj as it is popularly known as. Working closely with Subhash Chandra Bose in Singapore, she set up the first women’s regiment of the INA, called the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
Her mother was the renowned Ammukutty Swaminathan, who was an Indian social worker and political activist during the Indian independence movement and a member of the Constituent Assembly of India. Ammu herself got married at 14 and fought hard against child marriage. A Nair woman, she married a Brahmin man and both of them were completely against casteism.
In fact, when Ammu got married at 14, she laid down three conditions before saying yes to the marriage:
1. she wanted to live in a big city like Madras,
2. she wanted to get an English education from an English teacher, and
3. she should never be asked what time she’d reach home, since nobody asked her brothers that question.
As the daughter of an inter-caste couple, Lakshmi and her siblings faced prejudice from their own family. For example, they would have to sit separately to eat, for being ‘half caste’.
There is a very interesting anecdote from Lakshmi’s childhood. Her grandmother told her once not to touch scheduled caste children and that she would go blind if she did. Lakshmi immediately ran out of the house and hugged a little child. She ran back to her grandmother shouting, “See, I’m not blind.”
Her parents’ patriotic stance rubbed off on her. Once her parents had a huge bonfire in their front lawn during the Swadeshi movement, sacrificing lacy frocks, pretty dolls and chiffon sarees. She claimed that although she felt both miserable and elated, she did not feel any regret when it was over.
A Padma Vibhushan awardee, Captain Lakshmi was the sole opponent of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam in the presidential elections. Her life has been one of inspiration.
She was a doctor by profession, Gynaecology and Obstetrics. Despite that, she was keen to do more for the society, for Indians, for women. That’s how she joined INA in Singapore and even marched with the Japanese army to Burma during the Second World War. There, she was arrested by the British army and stayed in Burma for almost a year before her release in 1946.
Her daughter, Subhashini Ali, recalled her mother’s journey in an article. In her own words, “the recruitment of the ‘Ranis’ for the women’s regiment is an inspiring illustration of what the most ordinary of women can do when given the slightest of opportunities. When news spread in Singapore that such a regiment was to be formed, hundreds of young women from the city-state and from different parts of Malaya offered themselves for training and battle.”
There were more than 1200 recruits, of which 200 were trained as nurses. All of them received military training as demanding as that of the male soldiers. Many people believe that the Rani of Jhansi Regiment was a ‘nursing’ unit, but it was definitely not the case. It was trained for combat and sent to fight on the Burma front.
Captain Lakshmi was known for her kindness as much as her toughness. One of her friends recalled that Lakshmi arrived in Rangoon with two big suitcases, when the headquarters shifted there. Within minutes of unpacking, she had given away most of her clothes. She decided to keep one particularly beautiful and soft blanket for herself. The next morning, an old, sickly man, who was obviously very poor, told her that he never stopped feeling cold. Of course, she immediately gave him her blanket. She was known for being friendly and affectionate towards all the women soldiers. When they queued up for a meal, plate in hand, she would do so too.
During her lifetime, Captain Lakshmi did a lot of public service and in fact, continued consulting patients well into her nineties. During the Bangladesh war in 1971, she organised relief camps and medical aid in Calcutta for refugees.
She also led a medical team to Bhopal after the gas tragedy in December 1984, and worked towards restoring peace in Kanpur following the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
Her last act of kindness towards humankind was the donation of her body to Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi Memorial Medical College for medical research.
Captain Lakshmi, thank you for showing us that toughness and kindness can go hand in hand and we just need to choose the right approach for the situation.
- Lakshmi Sahgal: A life in service by Subhashini Ali
- Ammu Swaminathan: A Woman Of Undying Spirit And Determination by Parvathy Suresh
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*